Peace is Deadly Work in Burundi
Archbishop Simon Ntamwana knows how dangerous it is to work for peace in Burundi.
The country's first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993. Former archbishop Joachim Ruhuna was assassinated in 1996. On Dec. 29, Irish-born Archbishop Michael Courtney, the papal nuncio, was assassinated as he passed through a National Liberation Forces stronghold.
When Archbishop Ntamwana of Gitega, Burundi, placed blame for Archbishop Courtney's killing on the National Liberation Forces, the rebel group threatened him with assassination and gave him 30 days to leave the country.
Archbishop Ntamwana is the president of the Burundian bishops’ conference. He recently spoke by telephone with Register staff writer Tim Drake about the situation in his country.
What has daily life been like in Burundi during the past decade?
Burundi has been in a war period since 1993. We have reached a time of mistrust. Burundi has reached a level of poverty everywhere, particularly in the rural areas where the war has been very hard because the population couldn't work. Daily life has worsened a lot. Life has been very difficult in every sector. We are living in turmoil. Most families have lost family members or neighbors.
Since Burundi became independent, groups such as the Hutus and Tutsis have wished to gain power. Each ethnic group has desired to reach power and keep it while excluding the other group. There have been more than half-million people who have died as a result of direct violence, poverty or who have died while fleeing. At least 1 million people are displaced and not living at home.
During the past month we had hoped the war was stopping. All of the factions except for the National Liberation Forces had accepted the peace accord and were willing to implement the cease-fire. We had great hope, but now we are uncertain. We see that the rebel group is still resisting against possible dialogue. We are still mourning the death of Archbishop Courtney, but we would like to speak with the National Liberation Forces and encourage them to dialogue.
Why has the Church been involved in the negotiations?
We're involved in different ways. First, the Catholic Church makes up about 70% of the population. Sadly, Christians have been involved in the killing and the war. Young boys and girls have run away to the war. That has been very sad for us, that Christians have been involved in the violence — even though they know the commandment not to kill, to love one another and to respect life.
We are also involved because we have been victims of this war. It is clear many of the persons being killed are Catholic. The former archbishop of Gitega as well as 15 other priests and religious have been killed in this war. We are in a terrible moment of history and we have condemned the violence.
Since the beginning of this war the Church has been involved in talking about nonviolence, peace, justice and reconciliation.
What has the role of the Church been in negotiations?
The Catholic Church has played a role in the direct negotiations. What we have done since the beginning of the war is encourage the politicians to enter dialogue. Religious groups were not invited to participate, but we worked to convince the other groups to go and speak to one another.
Archbishop Courtney had done just that. He had tried to convince every group of politicians and rebels to talk with the government. He had been a good mediator, so we don't know why this killing has happened.
Have there been any new developments regarding who is responsible for Archbishop Courtney's death?
We just released a 12-page report on the assassination. We think he was killed by the National Liberation Forces people, even though they deny it. Maybe those who killed Archbishop Michael were separated from the central person of the National Liberation Forces, but it is evident that they did have to stay, it. No one was there from the army or any other group.
We are sure that they have done it, but we don't know why. Killing the nuncio is also an attack against the Pope, the Church and each person in the Church. Because I have said this, the leader of the National Liberation Forces condemned me to exile or death if I don't leave within 30 days.
Do you have any intentions of leaving Burundi?
The future of everyone is in the hands of God. It's very dangerous, but I think we have to stay with the people in this particular hour when we are suffering. We have to be very, very clever and wise to avoid that which could be dangerous, but I have to stay.
Are you confident that peace is yet possible in Burundi?
Oh yes, peace is a gift from God and our fellow man. We can hope because we know that God, our Father, is the father of peace. We are created for peace and love, not war.
Our people are tired of the violence. Most of them want to live quietly with one another. Some groups like the rebels and the army haven't been able to stop their feelings of violence because they have been commanded to fight. Our politicians also feel that peace is possible, so we have hope.
Do you see the same thing happening in Burundi as happened in Rwanda in 1994?
Genocide is not a question of numbers but a question of intention. For 40 years different ethnic groups have been killing one another because of origin. If we define genocide as killing people because of their ethnic group, genocide has already happened in Burundi.
Ethnicity is a gift from God. Fighting one another for power and riches has led to the genocide, which continues today in Burundi.
What is the next step for the Church in Burundi?
We should summarize Archbishop Michael's life as a life of witness of love among us. We want to gather his teachings and occasions of meeting people as examples of his courage and his message. We will take that message to our peo-ple.
I found Archbishop Michael deeply convinced that the only way for the future peace of Burundi was through dialogue. His life is an example that can help make us more united around the message of the Gospel that we are truly to love one another.
Archbishop Michael was an apostle of Jesus. He has paid with his life not in a senseless way, but because he was convinced that the way of life was through justice and peace. We have gone too far in this violence, and Archbishop Michael's life and death is a strong sign that we need to stop this war.
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minnesota.
- January 25-31, 2004